I grew up with a certain idea of Mexico and its people. This idea – narrow and limited in its scope – was predominantly shaped by American movies and what I’d seen on the news. Think images of men with moustaches and large sombreros walking around a desert scene dotted with cacti and tumbleweeds. It was all I had to go on. Alternative notions of what Mexico could be weren’t presented to me, so why would I think any differently?
There’s little doubt that Australia’s perception of Mexico and its people is fundamentally shaped by Mexico’s northern neighbour. The cultural exchange of ideas between the US and Australia is strong and deeply embedded – we speak the same mother tongue which obviously helps. But if we were to base our ideas solely on what we hear on the news and what we see in films, what would it look like? On one hand Mexico is a land of cartel killings and violence, on the other it’s ritzy hotels where you sip cocktails on the beach. These contradictory yet equally prevalent representations are based on a complex relationship between the US and Mexico which draws its roots from a tense and conflicted history.
Mexico has its share of problems – politically and otherwise – but I doubt there’s a country in the world that doesn’t. I can brainstorm a dozen gargantuan problems that face my home country in Australia. Many foreigners I've met have complained at will about the state of certain things in Mexico while failing to understand the many parallels that exist in their own nation. I will dwell briefly on one example. I often hear travellers complain of corruption in Mexico but I have to admit I feel a little differently. While corruption is prevalent, the most common form is out in the open. It can often be accompanied by a handshake and a friendly conversation. That’s not to say it’s right or fair, but there is an effort to maintain a human element to the transaction. The corruption in my country is of a different nature. It takes place behind closed doors between people who believe in power above all else and at any cost. And unfortunately we are often none the wiser. It is a system awash in money – of political donations and undue influence on lawmakers to an extent that I think we tend to forget, or at least ignore. It feels to me like politicians in Australia today have happily ignored that their job is to serve their own people instead of their own personal interests. I don’t wish to delve any more deeply into this, but instead present it as an idea of how we create ideas about foreign countries around the globe while failing to acknowledge our own flaws and examine ourselves from time to time.
Now that I’m starting to come to terms with just how big México is geographically, I’ve also played witness to the multitude of ways in which people live their lives in this wonderful country. The friendly greetings, smiles and hoots from farmers in the distance that I’ve received while riding my bike along the coast reflect a culture of generosity, curiosity and humility. Towns are awash with colour, whether it be brightly painted buildings or the lively pink flowers of the abundant bougainvillea trees that sway in the midday breeze. Even the cemeteries, which are so often devoid of colour schemes beyond black white and grey in other places, radiate the positivity and optimism of a vast nation.
I spent six weeks in the state of Oaxaca about six years ago. For the first four weeks I was welcomed into a family home in Oaxaca city and spent time with the many personalities of a household that spanned three generations. Although my Spanish at the time was fairly clumsy I was fortunate to observe how a family lived and breathed in that house from day to day. I played witness to the open affection that was given and received by all family members. I saw a devotion to God and the church so strong that the only response I could muster was one of awe and humility. I also ate some of the best food in my life. I left Mexico knowing I’d return – hoping that when that day came I’d speak a much less clunky and awkward version of español.
I think it’s safe to say my Spanish is a little better than it was all those years ago. For me, the best thing about speaking the language here is the richness of story that I’ve had access to. A lot of people have asked me why I chose the Americas for this trip. There’s a lot of answers to that question but much of it comes back to the importance of story. I wanted to go to a place where I could dive into the ocean of story that exists and swim around at will, plucking stories from wherever I could. Considering I only speak two languages, there was no place better than the Americas. As well as a wealth of unique and distinct Indigenous langauges across the continents, Spanish and English would allow me the great fortune of hearing stories from countless people across many latitudes, landscapes and climates. There's been no shortage of story here in Mexico. These personal memoirs from the many Mexicans I have met have reminded me time and again that we are not so different – that our common ideas of love, of the importance of our Mother Earth, of family and of life and death are based more simply on being human than being Mexican, American or Australian.